Saturday, December 3, 2016

The Vernacular Typography project: documenting the city's disappearing art

One of the ironies of the mass-information internet age is the rise of handcraft. From craft beer to paper-making, from the use of a certain color tint known as "folk-art blue" (even by self-taught outsider artists) to labor-intensive textile creation, the increasing amount of handcrafting is a response to the ubiquity of corporate branding and, even more so, the easy availability of "how-to" information.
What's ironic about the rush to make the old new again is the abandonment of the art that often surrounds us. This is especially true in cities, where hand-made signs and advertising are fast disappearing in the rush to demolish and replace.
This displacement is no longer just in New York City and other major areas known for the swing of the wrecking ball. Yet the vanishing act is more pronounced and noticeable in urban areas: history slowly disappears day by day, without notice or record, especially when it comes to a city's signs and signage. At Jeremiah's Vanishing New York, curator Jerimiah Moss interviewed Molly Woodward about her ongoing project, Vernacular Typography, which documents the city's daily attrition and is now expanding to cities around the globe.
Currently, Vernacular Typography contains over 5,000 images of found typography from Argentina, Chile, Cuba, England, France, Italy, Japan, Spain, and the United States. Website materials emphasize that contributions to the Vernacular Typography effort will allow the project to expand to new cities and incorporate new elements into the project (printed matter, interactive maps, video shorts, interviews with signmakers, etc) that are vital to the preservation of visual communication in the built environment.
The NYC typography record includes numbers, ghost signs, hand-painted signage, grammatical errors and fading fallout shelter signs -- reminders of the atomic age. The larger global project hopes to encompass much more. In her own description Woodward hopes to create "a collaborative effort with local typographers and sign-makers to document, map, and preserve these fragile remaining examples of a representative cultural art form that is being swept away by the uniformity of corporate advertising, which ignores and subverts local history and tradition in large and small urban areas: Mexico City, Oaxaca, Kowloon, Melbourne, and Sydney, and in smaller, fringe communities, like Tuxtla GutiƩrrez and Alice Springs."

Here's an excerpt of the interview with Molly Woodward at Jeremiah's Vanishing New York, by curator Jeriemiah Moss.
Q: How are you defining "Vernacular Typography"?
 A: I guess it should technically be Vernacular "Lettering," but I define Vernacular Typography as the found lettering that exists in the built environment and surrounds us everyday. It doesn't have to be pretty or use an existing typeface, it's just any visual representation of language. ...
Q: What do we lose when the vernacular typography of the city streets vanishes from sight?
A: A sense of the city's history, and also a precious visual resource. Typography can you tell you a lot about local culture and urban communication and when we don't see it, our sense of the city is diminished. 
Q: What do you think might be the psychological impact of living in a city where the native typography is replaced by homogeneous corporate signage?
A: I think there's less of a personal connection to a specific place. With standardized corporate advertising, signs are no longer representative of a group of people or a neighborhood, just a business that could be anywhere in the world. For natives, connections to the past are lost, so a sense of home or a memory of a place is devalued. And for visitors, there's less of the unique experience you get from traveling someplace new. 
Vernacular typography is such an incredible marker of regional identity, spatial orientation, and even personal history. If we lose it altogether, we not only lose that individual and cultural connection, but also a physical map of the city, which is why documentation and preservation are so important.

Vernacular Typography can be accessed here. (Images from the Vernacular Typography website.)

No comments: